‘An irreconcilable conflict of interest’ – Will British Cycling renounce the sponsorship from Shell?

British Cycling has been hit with a barrage of criticism after announcing an eight year sponsorship deal with oil giant Shell, and now an open letter asking them to reverse the deal has over 1000 signatures

“Is this satire?” 
“An April Fool’s joke?”
 “Absurd.”
“Greenwashing.”
“Disgusting.”

The list goes on. These are just a few of the responses to British Cycling’s recent announcement that it has signed an eight year agreement with Shell UK, explaining that the sponsorship would see a shared commitment between the two organisations to “accelerate British Cycling’s path to net zero”. 

It doesn’t take a scientist or climate expert to see why, to many people, this partnership and the goals it has set out to achieve just simply don’t make sense. Shell has been found to be the seventh most polluting company in the world, while cycling is the best method of environmentally-friendly transport. In theory, Shell is in the business of encouraging people to use more oil and gas, and British Cycling is in the business of getting more people on bicycles; the two don’t go hand in hand.

Professional cycling is by no means a clean sport, just glance through the list of some of the biggest teams in the men’s WorldTour and this becomes clear – think of the involvement of companies like Ineos and TotalEnergies or the sponsorships from states like UAE and Bahrain. But British Cycling sits in a different sphere to professional teams as an organisation that represents its paying members. It has a responsibility to work for the interests of the people who support it. From looking at social media and the backlash to the announcement of the Shell sponsorship, it’s obvious that British Cycling hasn’t done that this time.

British women's team pursuit team

Image: Will Palmer/SWpix

Angry tweets and emails are seldom enough to make real change, so the Badvertising campaign –  "a campaign to stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency" – has written an open letter to British Cycling asking them to reverse the eight year partnership with Shell UK. It states that there is an “incompatibility of aligning cycling with one of the world’s biggest polluters and major oil companies” and that “British Cycling has become a billboard for an oil company which has for decades lobbied against environmental action.”

It also outlines the fact that all sports are vulnerable to global heating, and cyclists especially are at risk of inhaling “lethal air pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels”. The letter asserts that it is in the interests of cyclists to transition away from using fossil fuels and that “cycling is in a unique position to aid that shift. However, accepting sponsorship from an oil company with a history of delay and misinformation on the issue is an irreconcilable conflict of interest.”

The open letter has now been signed by over 1000 organisations and individuals, many of whom are British Cycling members, former Olympians and other professional athletes, as well as NHS workers and environmental groups. It is said that many British Cycling members have cancelled their membership due to the controversial partnership with Shell.

Andrew Simms, who works for the Badvertising campaign, explains: “It's clear from the signatories to this letter that British Cycling's membership are more in tune with the climate predicament than its leadership, and also less naive about how progress will be achieved. Cycling has a huge role to play in replacing fossil fuel powered transport and tackling lethal air pollution, but that is not by being a billboard for an oil company that has lobbied against climate action for decades, and blown a cloud of fumes around the science and its own role to mislead the public. To protect its own members, as well as the environment, British Cycling must backpedal on this toxic greenwash deal."

It remains to be seen whether the growing pressure on British Cycling will have any tangible impact on the organisation’s next steps. So far, the national governing body has been silent on the controversy ever since it announced the Shell sponsorship a few days ago. It’s no secret that British Cycling is in need of funding, especially from a racing perspective. A new Olympic cycle has begun and the cost implications of equipment, salaries, travel to races and much more are huge, and it would certainly be a significant loss in income – which could have significant impacts on performance – for British Cycling if it renounces the Shell deal and is left without a title sponsor.

When Britain’s biggest professional team, Ineos Grenadiers [formerly Team Sky], announced its partnership with the fourth largest chemical company in the world, there was uproar too, but as we’ve become accustomed to seeing the brand on jerseys and nothing changed despite protests, discourse has steadily fizzled out. Perhaps British Cycling are hoping for a similar result by riding out the storm and staying quiet until the world moves on to something else. But it has certainly lost the trust of many of its members, and the response to this announcement has proved that many people are no longer prepared to stay silent about the climate catastrophe. Time will only tell if open letters and objections will make any difference to British Cycling taking funding from Shell, or if money talks.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix